Are you forgetting to chew? The unhealthy obsession hampering major projects

The rapidly changing market and squeeze on capital funds means it’s all the more important to demonstrate results, but are we focusing on the right things?

I want you to think of a small child wolfing down peas at dinner time on the promise of ice cream for dessert. The peas represent an unenjoyable and unwelcome obstacle in the path of the true goal: ice cream.

Some peas are chewed, some inhaled, and some hidden when no-one is watching, till thankfully the goal is reached – ice cream is served. However, the superhuman speed of pea consumption, the lack of chewing, and the poorly selected pea hiding places lead instead to creamy pea vomit and a big telling off.

If you’re still here, I want you to imagine yourself as the child, your parents as the client, project decisions as the peas, project success as the ice cream, and the vomit? Well, that’s the mess you make.

What I am describing is a way of thinking, or for some perhaps, a way of life. An unwavering, borderline obsessive focus on the delivery stage of the project lifecycle – often to the detriment of all the other super-important stages, like initiation, feasibility, design, etc.

Now, it is no surprise that this delivery-at-all-costs mindset is so prevalent in infrastructure projects – after all, we actively seek it out in recruitment and promotion processes and look for delivery leadership experience and skills in our most senior leaders. And to an extent – quite right too. We need leaders that live the project vision and bring people along the journey, thrive in a high-pressure environment, and get the best out of their people.

However, it’s when that delivery focus becomes blinkered that we encounter real problems.

By failing to plan, you are preparing to fail.

I looked at the top 10 infrastructure-related ‘Project Director’ jobs on LinkedIn over the last month, and the word ‘delivery’ featured at least once in every single advert. The word ‘planning’ however, came up only once, and that was because it was a Family Planning project.

The delivery stage of a project is jazzy, newsworthy, ribbon-cutting stuff, and many a project has been hoodwinked by civil works on site creating a heightened perception of progress.

The delivery stage is for many, more tangible, measurable, and gratifying than the paperwork-heavy stages of the project lifecycle, but those pre-construction stages are where the real magic happens, and where we are globally dropping the (very expensive) ball.

Did you know?

  • Scope change is the number-one driver of claims and disputes in Oceania (and globally). This number-one factor was cited on more than half of projects (53.5%), notably higher than in the rest of the world (37.4%).
  • Restricted or late access to sites affected one in four projects (25.5%) in Oceania where complex interfaces with adjacent roads, rail tracks, buildings and underground utility services, as well as challenging topography or ground conditions, required additional planning.
  • Inaccurate, late and incomplete design affected around a fifth of projects. When looking at all three factors combined this rose to two-fifths of projects.  
  • Tighter public finances are also reinforcing the trend of weighting contract awards towards the cheapest bidder. It is not unusual in the buildings sector for contractors to ‘buy’ work and beef up their commercial management teams from the outset with a view to recouping costs through variations and claims.

These are just a few highlights from the Oceania section of the HKA 6th Annual CRUX Insight Report which distils the findings of HKA consultants’ investigations on major projects worldwide over a six-year period to August 2023. Our dataset now covers 1,801 projects in 106 countries with a cumulative capital expenditure (CAPEX) value of $2.247 trillion. Our findings demonstrate the importance of the stages preceding delivery, and the cost of rushing or underthinking the challenges and decisions they present.

Quantitative meets qualitative

If we take that data, and apply our anecdotal experiences, a multitude of stories spring to mind for me, of project leaders and teams seemingly trying to whizz through the early project lifecycle stages to get to the delivery gold at the end of the rainbow. And this mindset can manifest in a number of ways:

  • Failure to listen to dissenting voices.
  • Poor decision-making.
  • Bypassing or ‘redefining’ necessary governance.
  • Chronic rebaselining without strategic rigour.
  • Employee disengagement.
  • Window-dressing project reports.

Of course, if you’re lucky, it can also lead to a successful project, delivered early / on time. But not usually.

Lessons from across the globe

A high-profile example from across the globe, is Crossrail.

According to a UK National Audit Office report, Crossrail was driven over budget and schedule because the “compressed schedule, contractual model, loss of downward pressure on costs, and absence of an achievable plan were set against an atmosphere where ‘can do’ became unrealistic.”

The NAO said that although problems had emerged as early as 2015, its management team clung to an unrealistic opening date, and did not take opportunities to change approach nor produce a sufficiently detailed delivery plan to track its progress.

The UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers’ 2020 Report, A Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery, took lessons from five major projects at various stages of delivery. One of the main recommendations was an overhaul of outdated leadership models.

The report concluded that “construction’s traditional, ‘heroic’ style of leadership is not fit for purpose for modern infrastructure projects. The sector needs to adopt leadership models that spread authority and empower highly competent individuals to take the key decisions in their areas of a project, while ensuring that everyone involved is focused on maintaining the integrity of the system to deliver the outcome demanded by its users and owners.”

It adds: “Scale matters. The larger and more complex a project, the less likely it is that it can be successfully led by a ‘warrior’ leader who can manage crises by force of will, or by a super-project manager who is focused overwhelmingly on process and deliverables.”

So where to from here?

I have often reflected on whether major projects should assign different leaders to different stages of the lifecycle based on their skills, passions and expertise, rather than appoint one to manage the lot.

Just as we sometimes incentivise integration and interface goals for contractors, we could do the same for project leaders – creating a relay race with incentives on getting that baton safely passed to the next runner, all the while keeping an eye on the overall race.

As I plot systemic change to the leadership profile of major projects, I would like to leave you with some simple steps we can be taking in the meantime to ensure our mindset remains balanced and we don’t slip unwittingly into the ‘delivery at all costs’ mindset:

  1. Include strategy and planning in project leader job descriptions (not just delivery).
  2. Listen extra hard to the people in your team saying things you don’t like.
  3. Appoint a semi / fully independent Project Sponsor.
  4. Implement peer mentoring for project leaders to share expertise or appoint different leaders for different stages.
  5. Don’t let a culture of heroic leadership / toxic positivity mask a crisis.

Let’s talk

At HKA, we know why projects go wrong. And we work with clients throughout all the stages of the project lifecycle to prevent that from happening. With our help at the front end of the project, you can avoid the creamy pea vomit.

But if that ship has already sailed, we can also help you clean it up.

About Lisa Martello

Lisa Martello is a project director with over 15 years of experience leading and supporting major rail and construction projects in the UK and Australia. She is a thought leader and thought provoker in the fields of inclusive leadership, diversity and inclusion, gender equality and project management, and she is passionate about driving innovation, ideas, and fresh thinking in construction. Lisa has an established record of setting up, developing, and delivering complex major projects on behalf of the client, contractor and delivery partner.

This publication presents the views, thoughts or opinions of the author and not necessarily those of HKA. Whilst we take every care to ensure the accuracy of this information at the time of publication, the content is not intended to deal with all aspects of the subject referred to, should not be relied upon and does not constitute advice of any kind. This publication is protected by copyright © 2024 HKA Global Ltd.


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